Meditation, mindfulness and suicide prevention

Can meditation help prevent suicide? The US Army is considering if mind training can boost mental resilience in military personnel.

Suicide, a leading cause of death worldwide

Author: Sochara Chumnoeur

Year: 2017

Title: Meditation as a Protective Factor Against Suicide In the US Army

Summary: We don’t often review qualitative papers produced from within the US military. However, the subject matter is so important that I wanted to draw some attention to this study. According to the World Health Organisation suicide is a significant cause of death globally, resulting in 800,000 fatalities each year; however, it is more common in some demographic groups than others. In the US, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people in the 15 to 35 age range, including around 250 active-duty soldiers each year.  According to background materials, the US Army has been making significant efforts to reduce suicide rates for almost two decades. This paper reports that ‘Many commonalities exist in the analysis of demographics and characteristics of suicide decedent within civilian and military populations.’ The claim suggests that research into suicide prevention in a military context may benefit wider society and vice-versa. The main recommendation is to integrate a bespoke meditation method into the US Army’s daily fitness programme. In summary, the paper argues that meditation could improve soldiers’ mental fitness, leading to greater resilience and lower levels of suicide.

This paper was written before the most recent scientific reviews of meditation research; it also predates evidence that meditation training can expose practitioners to unwanted adverse effects. But none the less the questions that it raises and the trajectory that it suggests are important. A key point made in the  study is

A recent reduction in force and budget have challenged the Army to find more efficient and effective methods to ensure readiness in its soldiers.

The idea that meditation offers a cheap and universal panacea is not without precedent and reflects some discussions about mindfulness from within social policy. The key questions to be asked at this early stage are linked to the theoretical understandings of suicide and meditation’s ability to meditate relevant mental traits and states. I’ve experienced meditation’s capacity to boost mental resilience; there’s plenty of individual studies that make this same point. But what meditation techniques might be appropriate for military personnel (or linked to suicide prevention more generally)? Is the non-judgement of medicalised mindfulness, or the nondual compassion of traditional meditation desirable training for combat troops? A final question is one most meditation scientists will be familiar with; how do you know if someone engages with meditation (in their mind). Physical training can be observed, but contemplative mind training is much more abstract to empirical measurement. Suicide is such a serious problem that any progress in prevention is welcome; I’d be interested to hear about any studies or anecdotes that could add to my understanding in this field.

Link: https://apps.dtic.mil/sti/citations/AD1038585